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‘Judaism’s Greatest Cultural Masterpiece’

April 7, 2017

“The Talmud is Judaism’s greatest culture masterpiece. It brings to life a world where words and ideas matter,” exclaims Rabbi Mira Wasserman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Rabbinic literature at RRC and the author of a forthcoming book on one of the Talmud’s most controversial volumes.

Through her teaching, research and publishing, Wasserman is making a case for the Talmud’s relevance beyond the Orthodox world. Yet she is keenly aware of a contradiction at the heart of the legacy of the 1,500-year-old, 6000-plus-page corpus.

The work, which traditional Jews believe contains God’s oral law, sustained and inspired Jews for generations. It has also literally fueled the fires of anti-Semitism. Public burnings of the Talmud were common in medieval Europe and government censorship of the texts continued long afterwards. That’s partly due to the text’s inclusion of downright cringe-worthy descriptions of non-Jews, for example, as defilers of livestock owned by Jews.

“The Christian accusation of the Talmud containing anti-Christian sentiment was not misplaced. There’s no shortage of xenophobia in the Talmud,” said Wasserman.

She explained there’s also plenty of examples of non-Jews being hailed as paragons of virtue, such as the case of a merchant named Dama Ben Netina. He is sought out by rabbinic sages looking for a precious jewel for the high priest's vestments, but Ben Netina turns down the fortune offered to him because he does not wish to wake his father, who holds the key to the jewel box. The sages don’t believe the merchant is genuine and assume he is simply bargaining for a higher price.

Her new book, published by the University of Pennsylvania press, is called “Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud After the Humanities.” (RRC funded part of her research.) It is a close-reading of the Talmudic tractate Avoda Zara, which means idolatry. It’s the section of the Talmud that’s most often been censored. Avoda Zara focuses on relations between Jews and non-Jews, as well as between humans and the animal kingdom.

It’s a sensitive area to wade into at a time when there are heightened fears of global anti-Semitism. But Wasserman thinks one message that’s been lost is how much the tractate emphasizes the commonalities between Jews and non-Jews and the relationship of all people to the larger world.

“I am reading the tractate in an entirely different way than it has been read historically,” said Wasserman. “I am reading it as an extended deliberation about what is different about Jews and non-Jews and also what is the same about them.”

Wasserman also understands the tractate as an extended exploration of how humans stand in relation to other living things and the cosmos.

“The rabbis thought about the world differently than we did. God and angels and celestial beings seemed real to them in a way that might not seem real to us,” explained Wasserman. “And they also saw continuities between humans and animals that are downplayed in our culture, where we tend to be so distinct from nature. But one thing I’m arguing in my book is that Avoda Zara gives us a glimpse of where and how the rabbis placed humans in the world.”

The Talmud, from the Hebrew root word that means “to learn”, consists of some 37 volumes, or tractates, and was written and edited over several hundred years, completed in Babylonia in the sixth or seventh century CE. (An earlier version was also compiled in the land of Israel.) Next to the Bible, it's considered the central text of normative Judaism and is a compendium of Jewish oral tradition, stories and discussions on religious law. It contains a record of rabbinic conversations about everything from the laws of keeping kosher to everyday concerns of marriage and commerce as well as more obscure topics like ritual sacrifice—a practice that ended hundreds of years before the Talmud was completed.

Wasserman was ordained by the Reform movement and, while she learned Talmud, never felt like she’d truly mastered the material or the process of study. In the 1990s, while she was serving a congregation in Indiana, an anti-Semitic group circulated a pamphlet alleging that the Talmud was anti-Christian. Unfamiliar with all the references, Wasserman devoted herself to Talmud study.

“Are the anti-Semites getting this right?” Wasserman wondered.

Eventually, she decided to leave the congregational rabbinate to pursue a doctorate in Talmud at the University of California, Berkley.

“Knowledge of the Talmud felt like the last thing that was separating me from a deep sense of my authority or authenticity as a rabbinic leader,” said Wasserman. “If I have any mission as a Talmud teacher, it is to make the Talmud, not only accessible but really relevant to liberal Jews today.”

In true Reconstructionist fashion, Wasserman encourages Jews to not simply toss aside the Talmud’s uglier aspects. Rather, she urges us all to look the ugliness in the eye, understand it, and place it within a fuller context; especially at a time when interreligious understanding is so important.

Though her book is clearly aimed at a scholarly audience, she is also working on a book aimed at a lay audience.

“How can the Talmud be enlivened as a resource for ethical living? For Jews and non-Jews? That book is the most closely aligned with the teaching I do at RRC,” said Wasserman, who was awarded RRC’s 2016 Yaakov Gladstone Award for Fine Teaching.

Leiah Moser, who is graduating RRC in June and hopes to make Talmud instruction a major piece of her rabbinate, said that Wasserman encourages students to consider how the debates recorded in its pages relate to social and economic issues today. Also, Moser explained that Wasserman has championed yeshiva-style learning to RRC, in which students learn from one another and from their teacher. This helps students build skills to decode Talmud and reinforces that it is about the process of learning and discussing, not about finding definitive answers.

“When it comes to learning Talmud, ordinary methods of teaching won’t work, since Talmud is structured as a conversation,” said Moser. “Talmud isn’t a Ted Talk. Talmud is written as a conversation. It is not a book so much as a record of a dialogue. It is so hard to read Talmud by yourself. “

Moser and Wasserman share a vision in which non-Orthodox Jews engage in yeshiva-style Talmudic learning. Moser acknowledged many people would need to build skills and knowledge in order to do so, but is convinced that many who don’t frequent synagogues would be drawn toward studying this intense, spiritual text.

Wasserman stated that, whether or not people follow Jewish law, they could be drawn to “an engaged debate about what God wants from human beings. It is a raucous debate about ultimate meaning. Joining in that debate is an incredibly demanding, intellectually challenging, and engaging project.”


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